Have you ever felt like you are painted into a corner? Your one cash crop seems to require more chemical and fertiliser inputs each year but prices for your produce remain static. Welcome to modern agriculture, where precious food producers have been railroaded into an input-driven system on the premise that there is no alternative. In this, the second part of my “Questioning the Status Quo” series, we will look behind the veil at this premise. In the process you may realise that major, much needed changes are underway that will redefine the way we produce food and the fun we will have doing so.
An ever-increasing world population is driving a food production system dominated by industrial agriculture because there is no other choice. The family farm does not offer the economy of scale required to be both productive and profitable in this economic environment. Hence, we have witnessed the dramatic decline of the kin factor in favour of the promise and ‘bottom line’ logistics of share market sting. In this scenario, “get bigger or get out” has become the maxim and this is the shape of the future.
There has been a huge loss of family farms in the past few decades, particularly in the US, and there is a direct link to the unquenchable demand for cheap food. The supermarket chains have often driven produce prices lower, but the producers, rather than the middle men, are inevitably the big losers in this equation. When you control the vast majority of the market you really do wield all of the power. You can dictate prices for the producers and set your own price for the consumers. Competition determines that we do end up with cheaper food with this system, but the struggling farmer effectively funds the discount. The end result is the failure of family enterprises in favour of large scale efficiency and industrial farming principles.
This is proving to have serious consequences for the soil, the people and the planet. There is an undeniable “rape and plunder” edge when enterprises are solely governed by the bottom line and shareholder profits. We have missed the crucial fact that land stewardship is a highly desirable feature of family farms. There is an inherent operating philosophy here where each generation strives to pass on an improved property to their offspring. The past few decades of chemical farming has certainly not sponsored this outcome, but historically this era will be seen as a period characterised by gross mismanagement, fuelled by greed and ignorance.
The open-minded, forward thinkers amongst the older farmers acknowledge that a great deal has been lost in the name of extractive agriculture and chemical management. In fact, it is this recognition, coupled with the more sustainable vision of a growing number of younger farmers, that is driving the biological agriculture revolution. However, the family farm must become economically viable. We must reclaim profitability and the “get bigger or get out” mantra is not the solution. Thankfully, another option is emerging. A suite of drivers are dictating a major transformation in the way we produce our food and the coming changes promise a much needed improvement to the health of the soil, the environment and the people dependent upon both.
The Top Ten Drivers
Powerful forces are driving the coming change and they include:
- An ageing population of farmers.
- Peak oil and the associated need to localise food production.
- The recognition of the carbon sink potential of the soil.
- A growing understanding that food quality equates to quality of life, from a health and happiness perspective.
- Chemical contamination of our food and the unacceptable price we are all paying.
- Water management and impending issues.
- “Peak phosphate” and the implications.
- Nitrogen mismanagement and the greenhouse effect.
- A growing need for food security in uncertain times.
- An undeniable shift in consciousness that is well underway.
I will examine each of these drivers to demonstrate this change is both necessary and inevitable.
1) Who Will Grow Our Food?
The average age of American farmers is 64 years and we are not too far behind. The obvious question is “who will grow our food if a younger generation is not stepping up to the plate?” A more penetrating question would be, “why are people avoiding the food producing profession?” The answer is not simple, but it basically involves a combination of shunning the struggle and seeking something more stimulating.
I vividly recall my conversation with American farmer/author, Joel Salatin, for my “Nutrition Rules!” book. Joel was concerned about the future for his children. He had recognised that large-scale monoculture and the equipment investment involved, locks the grower into a lifetime of debt and commits them to a profession that fails to fuel a stimulus-hungry generation. His solution was to develop a multi-faceted food production model where intertwined, synergistic enterprises created a diverse and fascinating profession that truly supported the creative and entrepreneurial aspirations of a new generation of growers.
I immediately resonated with his philosophy as I had children of a similar age. I knew for certain that if, in the context of their information-rich and entertainment-packed, high voltage lifestyles, they were asked to consider monoculture farming as a career path, the resounding response would be “but that’s boring”. In my opinion the “boring” tag is a fair call. It could well prove a soul destroying option to spend your short lifetime sitting in the cab of a tractor, applying herbicide or planting your sole broadacre crop with the aid of GPS. We desperately need to make farming more exciting and I believe that “get bigger or get out” may well become “diversify or get out” in the not too distant future.
2) Peak Oil – Peak Production Costs
In the history of economics, whenever the first half of a non-renewable commodity has been utilised, the price for the second half spirals upward. There has never been an exception to this rule. It would seem incredibly optimistic to think that oil, the most in-demand non-renewable commodity in history, would not fit this pattern.
Modern agriculture is oil dependant. All of the fungicides, pesticides, herbicides, wormicides and nematicides are petro-chemical based. The soluble fertilisers, irrigation systems and farm machinery are similarly oil-centred. The smart operators around the globe are recognising this vulnerability and they are exploring options that reduce their reliance upon petrochemicals. Biological agriculture is the obvious alternative. Numerous growers are now learning how to harvest nitrogen free from the air, reduce chemical intervention with nutrient-density, minimise irrigation costs by storing moisture in humus, and using soil biology to improve soil structure in the place of a 300 horsepower tractor ripping up hardpans.
The other issue linked to both peak oil and greenhouse gas emissions is the cost and sustainability of food transportation. It is this concern, amongst others, that will continue to sponsor the “eat local” movement and the enormous growth of farmers markets around the globe. It really is ridiculous when you step back and analyse the current situation. “Food Miles” is the term used to describe the transport distance travelled between production and consumption. However, it is not just the absurd inefficiency involved in the massive number of food miles linked to many common food items, it is also the loss of nutrition. Fresh peas lose 50% of their nutrition within a week of harvest. Spinach stored at room temperature loses between 50% and 90% of its vitamin C within 24 hours. B group vitamins, vitamin E and vitamin C are the first casualties during long distance transport and these antioxidants are already at low levels due to their premature harvest (to increase storage time). The air transport of 200 grams of Chilean grapes generates greenhouse emissions equivalent to leaving on a light bulb for the weekend.
3) Building Soil Carbon is the Only Solution
I scratch my head in disbelief at the time it is taking our politicians to recognise that sequestering carbon, as humus in the soil, is the only strategy that can deliver the necessary changes in time. If we were to reduce C02 emissions by 100% immediately, than in 200 years time we would reduce atmospheric C02 levels down to the levels that were found in the atmosphere in 1975 (and this is still too high). The reality is that we are never going to reduce levels to this degree and even if we could, we simply don’t have 200 years! Ice core sampling reveals a spike in greenhouse gasses every 100,000 years and we are currently at the peak of a cycle. The problem is that every other time for the past 600,000 years, C02 levels have peaked at 280 ppm but they are currently at 384 ppm and climbing fast.
Since 1850 there has been 476 gigatonnes of C02 released into the atmosphere due to soil mismanagement and associated humus loss. In that same period, all of human enterprise, from industry and transport to coal fired power stations, has released a combined total of 270 gigatonnes. Most of the offending, blanket-thickening C02 has come from massive humus losses (70% in the last century) and it is past time that we recognized that fact and began returning C02 to the soil. This involves stable carbon with an average lifespan of 35 years that is produced by cellulose-digesting fungi.
Humus-building is a biological process and it has been seriously compromised by chemical farming practices and conventional cultivation strategies. It is not hard to envisage a scenario where many of these destructive practices are outlawed to protect cellulose-digesting fungi, the most important creatures on the planet at this point in time. Many of the more astute in the farming community are now realising this and this is another factor that has turned the biological ripple into a sizeable wave.
4) We Are What We Eat
Nutrition science research is awash with studies confirming the protective capacity of the phytonutrients found in food. There is a growing recognition that we can not replace this effect with supplements, as the food contains a suite of co-factors that determines the performance of nutrients like beta-carotene, lycopene, sulforaphane, resveratrol and anthocyanins. The minerals found in plants are 98% bioavailable while the minerals in a bottle achieve less than half that degree of utilisation.
We were simply supposed to get our protection from plants but their defensive capacity depends upon how they are grown. Recent UK research revealed oranges that contained zero vitamin C and spinach that was so depleted that Popeye would have had to have downed a thousand cans to achieve his muscle pumping kick. Nutrient density and associated defensive capacity is determined by mineral balance, mineral availability and the microbial status of the soil. These are, of course the “essentials” of biological farming but they have been largely ignored in extractive agriculture.
5) When Will The Contaminants Be Considered a Calamity?
The massive worldwide growth in organics (23% in Australia last year) reflects an increasing concern about the presence of chemical residues on our food and the unresearched impact of genetically modified food crops. Research conducted in the US three years ago revealed that every one of the 1400 children tested contained unacceptable levels of the thirteen most commonly used chemicals in agriculture. Minimum residue restrictions are simply not cutting it because of the accumulative effect of constant exposure. Leukemia is now the largest killer of our kids and there is an undeniable link to chemical agriculture.
However, the unacceptable health impact does not stop at cancer. There is an epidemic of childhood obesity in both the US and Australia. Diabetes in children, for example, has increased 5-fold in the last decade. New research has connected farm chemicals to endocrine disruption that can drive obesity. Chemical residues on our food can wreak havoc with our hormone systems, which are key players in managing metabolism and controlling weight. These negative effects are much more damaging in the developing fetus and at much lower rates. The fetus has a faster metabolism (to magnify the effect) and is not yet equipped with protective mechanisms like DNA repair systems, immune competency, detoxifying enzymes, liver metabolism and the blood brain barrier.
It seems we are not only poisoning our children with this bankrupt food production system but we may also be sentencing them to a humiliating life of destructive obesity. At some point in the near future we will reach a tipping point where a critical mass will reject this contamination and then the transnational perpetrators will no longer have a market for their poisons and genetically modified garbage!
6) Increasing Water Use Efficiency
Water is rapidly becoming our most precious commodity. 74% of the planet is covered by water but only 3% is fresh. 90% of the fresh water is used for irrigation. Wars will be fought over water as climate change unfolds. The huge dams that supply irrigation areas are notoriously inefficient. There are massive losses due to evaporation and a substantial carbon footprint is required to deliver the water to where it is needed. Biological agriculture is about recognising that humus is the chief determinant of your financial success. Farmers are about to be paid to build humus and this is the ultimate win/win. An organic matter increase of 1% represents an increased water storage capacity in the soil of 170,000 litres per hectare (that’s more than a bucket of water for every square meter!). There is no evaporation and there are no huge diesel pumps required, when the plant roots are right beside the water source. Humus is the glue in the soil so we will see much less erosion, fertiliser leaching and loss of topsoil from dust storms.
Soil biology also plays a major role in water use efficiency. Humus is the home base for trillions of bacteria that release a sticky biofilm that operates like water crystals beside the roots. It is very common for irrigators to report substantial reductions in water use after adopting biological principles. The bacteria create this compound to protect themselves from predators and to support the hydration of their host. The plant is pumping 30% of its glucose production into the soil to feed the organisms surrounding the roots. The bacteria obviously appreciate this generous gift and they know that any hydration support they can offer will serve to ensure an ongoing flow of free food.
7) Peak Phosphate – Peak Prices
It is now generally accepted that we have arrived at, or are very near to the point, where we have used up half of the world’s phosphate supplies. The recognition of this fact is promoting the lockdown of phosphate supplies in several countries, including China. In Professor Julian Cribb’s recent book, “The Coming Famine”, he describes how nutrients will become “the oil of the 21st century”. He implores Australians to “close the loop” – to preserve and recycle to gain a nutritional, economic and environmental advantage in the upheaval ahead.
Our current use of phosphate in conventional agriculture involves the virtual opposite of preservation and recycling. It is estimated that we access just 23% of our DAP/MAP before 77% of our fertiliser investment becomes part of an estimated 10 billion dollars of locked up phosphate in Australian soils. Soluble phosphate is obviously not sustainable from a preservation perspective. Biological agriculture features proven strategies to reduce these massive losses and it also offers the tools to recycle the frozen bank account. In many cases, in intensive horticulture, the soil contains enough locked up phosphate to supply the majority of P requirements for decades to come. Again, it is not hard to foresee a time when the current P fertilising inefficiency will no longer be acceptable. Smart operators are preempting the obvious and making the appropriate changes.
8) Nitrogen and Global Heating
Nitrogen mismanagement has been a predominant feature of modern farming practices. 80% of the offending greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide, comes from agriculture (nitrous oxide is 310 times more potent than CO2 as a blanket-thickener). However, it is not just about release of this problem gas; there is also a direct link to the 476 gigatonnes of CO2 that has moved from the soils to the atmosphere since the industrial revolution.
Once again there is a biological link. When nitrogen is oversupplied, in the absence of carbon, it has a stimulating effect upon the 2.5 tonnes of bacteria found in every hectare of living soil. These creatures have a carbon to nitrogen ratio of just 5:1. When they have satisfied their hunger for nitrogen (their bodies actually contain 17% N) they must then access carbon to balance their tight C:N ratio. When carbon is not included with fertilisers, these creatures have little choice but to literally eat themselves out of house and home. They consume humus as a carbon source and eventually release a large portion of it as CO2 to the atmosphere.
Nitrogen mismanagement is a major reason that we have lost almost 70% of our humus to the atmosphere. We need to stabilise our applied nitrogen, apply it more efficiently and reduce our reliance upon commercial nitrogen by accessing a much larger portion free from the atmosphere. If we look after our nitrogen fixing organisms in the soil, by providing the 5-part recipe to facilitate access to the 74,000 tonnes of nitrogen gas hovering above every hectare, then we reduce our petrochemical dependence and the associated blowout in fertiliser costs.
9) When Protectionism is Appropriate
Food security is becoming an increasingly serious concern in many of the countries to which I travel. If you do not have complete independence in relation to food production then you are vulnerable in uncertain times. The French have always looked after their farmers with protectionist politics, but it works for them. They are “foodies” and they have the best fresh food in Europe, simply because they look after their food producers. Where are the gains in turning your farmers into poverty line battlers in the name of free market enterprise? It is time to recognise that food producers are involved in the most important profession of all and they should be cherished and protected accordingly.
10) The Big Change Is Happening Now!
Most of us have heard the myriad predictions of tumultuous change within the next few years. I don’t necessarily buy into the doom merchant vision but I do see an undeniable transformation emerging. There is a growing spiritual awareness in many of the people I meet. The unparalleled success of Eckhart Tolle’s latest book, “A New Earth”, is testimony to this shift in consciousness. The big mind shift involves the realisation that we are all one and, if this is true, then when we despoil the planet, produce substandard, contaminated food and take, rather than give, we are, in effect, directly impacting ourselves and our families. It becomes so simple and the golden rule, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” shines like a beacon within this new understanding.
To read Part 1 of this article, please click here.